"When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them." (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18)
Jesus gives a lesson today on prayer to begin our Lenten journey in Matthew's gospel. The first instruction on prayer is to avoid being a hypocrite. Don't model fraudulent Christians who love standing and praying in the church and on the streets for others to see and hear. These instructions seem shocking; after all, you should pray in the church.
Also, praying on the street corner can't be that bad; we have freedom of speech. Jonah preached on Ninevah's dusty roads, encouraging the town to repent. However, if the prayers are lengthy and laborious, praying loud and saying nothing anywhere can cause some concern.
Kenneth E. Bailey, in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes -Cultural Studies in the Gospel, shared how some people prayed before the legalization of Christianity in 300 B.C. The early practice during this period was to make your salutations correct. Everyone practiced saying their prayers, including the names of the following:
"The emperor Caesar, Galerius, Valerius, Maximanus, Invictus, Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Germanicus Maximus, Egypticus Maximus Phoebicus Maxius..."
Prayers in this fashion would go on and on. Long salutations were considered the appropriate tone to pray during the current reign of the emperor Caesar. For this reason, Jesus addresses these folks who love to recite long salutations. The words were more pompous and faithless. They were praying long-winded prayers and saying nothing. For this reason, Jesus taught them to pray simply by saying, "Our Father ..."
The Pharisees in Luke's narrative had a unique approach to prayer by exalting themselves: "O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income" (Lk. 18:10). In this prayer, the salutation is short. Unfortunately, the second part of the Pharisees' prayer distinguishes himself as more spiritual than the tax collector. He wanted people to see and hear him on the street corner. Praying loud and saying nothing.
For this reason, James teaches that, "You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. Adulterers! Do you not know that to be a lover of the world means enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wants to be a lover of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (Ja. 4:3-4). The Pharisees and those who wish to impress their audience with long salutations exhibit a deep love for the world, making themselves an enemy of God.
Here one may ask Jesus if we should say only short prayers to avoid praying like hypocrites. The preacher in Ecclesiastes gives this wisdom, "Be not hasty in your utterance and let not your heart be quick to utter a promise in God's presence. God is in heaven, and you are on earth; therefore, let your words be few" (Eccl. 5:1). Jesus would say later in Matthew's gospel, "be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves" (Mt. 10:16).
Therefore, the wisdom in praying is to choose your words wisely and sincerely. Jesus is not concerned with long or short prayers. Jesus wants a sincere prayer; it can have one word or ten words. Your prayer can be a picture or just a stillness of feeling his presence; what is in the heart makes the prayer genuine.
Start your Lenten Journey by praying on these words, "... your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you." In other words, our Father, who art in heaven, knows your heart; he will bless the prayer of the righteous.
Authored: Evangelist Michael P. Howard, MACS